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School mask policies will vary widely under new Virginia guidance; Northam says ‘one size doesn’t fit all’

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)–On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions about Virginia’s new mask policy for PreK-12 schools for the first time since the state released updated recommendations.

Starting July 26th, after a current public health order expires, localities will have the power to implement their own mask rules or get rid of them all. 

While many school districts are still reviewing the state’s guidance, others are wasting no time. One thing is already clear: mask policies will vary widely across the Commonwealth this fall. 

When asked if he is concerned about a patchwork of policies, Northam said, “One thing that we learned during COVID-19 is that one size doesn’t fit all. There are different vaccination rates. There are different rates of folks ending up in the hospital across Virginia.”

While localities will have the final say, Northam is strongly encouraging continued universal mask requirements indoors in elementary schools until kids under 12 are eligible and have time to get fully vaccinated.  

As for middle and high schools, the state says–at a minimum–those who aren’t fully vaccinated should still have to wear a face covering. This is in line with new CDC guidelines.

“I would hope that everybody wants to do the right thing and that is to keep people safe during COVID-19 so we are empowering the different localities across Virginia to follow our guidelines and to follow the data,” Northam continued. 

Despite that advice, some localities are already announcing that masks will be optional for everyone, though mandates on buses will continue under a federal order.  

That’s the plan in Southwest Virginia’s Grayson County—where 36 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated—according to Superintendent Kelly Wilmore. 

“There is a tremendous amount of support in our community not to have masks. I won’t speak for all of my staff, but the majority don’t want to go back in with masks either,” Wilmore said.  

Even if cases surge, Wilmore said he doesn’t see the district restoring a universal mandate. 

In nearby Bristol, Superintendent Keith Perrigan said they are sending out a parent survey but he anticipates that they will have less stringent requirements than the state is recommending.  

“I think we will try to start the year with as few masking requirements as possible and then see how that goes. If we start to see outbreaks and it impacts our ability to operate in person schools then we may get stricter,” Perrigan said. 

Richmond City Schools are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Acting in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Virginia Education Association, RPS will continue its 100% mask wearing policy. 

“We feel this is the safest course of action, particularly with the surging Delta variant,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a letter to families. 

Schools that want to strike a middle ground on masking may run into some logistical challenges when it comes to tracking vaccination status and enforcing rules based on that. 

The state is advising districts to consult school board attorneys on the matter.  

The shift to local control comes as many students are still holding off on getting vaccinated. 

Northam said 99 percent of people currently hospitalized from COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated. 

“So while we know masks are effective, the most effective means for dealing with COVID-19 is to take a shot,” Northam said.

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